Technological Threats to Academic Publishing

This is a short and pessimistic view on what could be out there in the near future that seriously impedes us from having a scholarly conversation. I focus on written publications, leaving aside issues surrounding conferences and learned societies. Additionally, I am specifically addressing technological challenges. I wrote it thinking that if we create awareness, we can do something about it.

The major issue is a shift from private ownership to corporate rental. We first saw it with software. The Windows Store and App Store have quickly become the dominant way to obtain software, and other things are quickly morphing into Software as a Service (SaaS). This model has been applied to commercial content. We have seen the success of the so-called streaming services (Netflix, Spotify, etc.). From here, we notice that even private documents are pried from our hands through so-called cloud storage (iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.). This goes so far as iCloud actively deleting files from your computer without consent in what they call “optimization” and Dropbox flagging files you share if they believe it is copyright protected. We are already living in that reality. But academic publishers have not quite tapped into this model just yet (early adaptors are the cursed Proquest EBook Central and EBSCO Host).

There is a two-pronged potential here. One is to build out ‘streaming services’ that will offer content in such snippets that it practically cannot be put together on our own devices and can only meaningfully be used through their streaming service. Some are already offering rudimentary highlighting and note taking functionality (ROFL). This would especially work if the plain text of publications is no longer offered, only drawing instructions to make it look like there is text on the screen. Developments in JavaScript and CSS (the programming languages everything on the web is built from) are making this possible and groundwork is being laid by the likes of Google. Part of this process could be to offer images only, and this seems particularly likely, as academic publishing can’t seem to get away from a page-based layout meaning that what academic publishers call ebooks are actually just PDFs. The more proprietary and the more distance it has from plain-text, the more we will be simply forced to rely on these streaming services

Speaking of PDFs, what about the hundreds of thousands of PDFs already floating around the web? Pessimistically speaking, there is a way for all of this to go away. If academic publishers will look at how the music industry has twisted YouTube’s arm in setting up detection of copyrighted material, automatically leading to take downs and bans, and if we keep our documents on a cloud storage service, it is easy to see where this is going: one day you will open up your Dropbox and all your PDFs will simply be gone. Maybe your account too. Without the option to appeal. We will see lots of collateral damage. I think academic research is seriously stymied if we can no longer keep private copies.

Now, there is a significant effort in getting open access publishing off the ground. Publishers are setting up infrastructure for this. And I am wondering: is this an opportunity or a threat? In a digital world, it is not the content or content creator that holds power, but it is the platform. The platform decides what shows up on search queries and what is suppressed. It decides what is allowed to be uploaded and it has the possibility to ban or deplatform someone, based entirely on their own terms of use without any say from the users themselves. In large companies you have co-determination through work councils or unions. On these digital platforms, there is no such thing. Previously, publishers were only charged with the job of physically producing the books. We gave them our manuscript, they produced books, we took them in and curated and conserved them. Now, we give them our manuscript and they keep it. We don’t get it back. The argument might go that curating and conserving books in the digital world is a specialized task (keeping physical books is similarly specialized but okay). But what guarantee do we have that they are up for the task? After all, they have economic motivations, not scholarly ones. And we know all too well already, that promises of indefinite availability are easily broken under new management.

Different terms like green, gold, diamond or whatchamacallit open access seem more like a form of gamification, to give us some badge of merit than anything else. A smokescreen made up of the one thing scholars desire even more than knowledge: respect and esteem. It is only time before we are able to create private accounts on publisher’s platforms (Jstor kind of does already, and others are trying too) and we will be able to flaunt with our publications and their level of open access. This leads me to a final concern.

I predict that publishers will attempt to circumvent institutions (universities, libraries) and establish a direct relationship with scholars. It would be an adaption of the social media model: users not only consume but also produce all the content. A big difference here is that traditional social media relies heavily on advertisements and this would seem unworkable for this target audience (again, consumerism is not a high priority when you’re browsing through scholarly articles and books). The solution could be that institutions will continue to be asked to pay. But here comes another technological threat: much like the capitalist forces involved in job hunting (having pay to play, through for example an almost mandatory use of services like Interfolio), a social media-esque landscape of accessing scholarly literature will stimulate publishers to try to bring the financial burden to us individuals as well. This can be done through micro-transactions or a variant on it, premium memberships. Technology has made it very easy to get someone to fork over money through only a few taps or clicks. Right now, publishers are charging amounts for individual access that makes no sense (about €30-$35). But once we are more firmly locked into their ecosystem as direct, individual users, who is not to say that you would give up a few bucks to get ‘indefinite access’ to something you ought to look at to complete your own research?

As an aside, this social media-esque landscape will also stimulate publications. I mean stimulate here in the wrong sense. In fact, this part of my pessimistic reading of technology’s influence on academic publishing has to a large extent already become a reality. Vanity publishing has never been easier, through a constant stream of new journals (most of them, it seems, have “International Journal of” as a name). But here is the worrying part for the near future: established publishers will love this boom of predatory publishers and obfuscation of knowledge production and distribution because the more it becomes a problem, the more they can portray themselves as the trusted solution. They are the gatekeepers of real scholarship, they will say, the one you pay through the nose for, they will say under their breath.

Long term and very futurist perspective here: Anything to expect from cryptocurrency? Their development trajectory is capricious and it gives off a sense of either burning out and tossed aside or altering our digital lives radically. Right now it is completely harmless to academic publishing. But things can shift. Take NFTs for example. This is a significant shift to attain a unique and persistent identity for a digital object. Not unlike a DOI. Cryptocurrency, like bitcoin, came into being as the creation of a multitude of the same thing: bitcoins. Now it doesn’t make much sense to trade 10 bitcoins for 10 bitcoins so trading was done against something different altogether (say, exchanging 10 bitcoins for 10 dollars). NFTs are like bitcoins, but each with a different value. So now it does make sense to trade NFTs against NFTs. So far, NFTs have been valued differently for their attachment to a thing (as I understand it – I don’t pretend to be an expert). A very successful example is NBA Top Shot. Plenty of bad examples can be mentioned. NFTs could be a significant stepping stone towards something more devastatingly useful in the future. And I suspect it could be weaponized in some form as a DRM. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

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